Baby Driver is the reason you like to go to the movies. It’s slick, smart, and fun. It can land a joke just as easily as it can land a punch. And most importantly, it can tell a simple, traditional story in a way that actually feels new and inspired. What’s more, it knows how to shake the seats of the theater in all the best ways, whether it’s through the roar of an engine, the firing of a bullet, or the wailing of an electric guitar. What Edgar Wright has accomplished here is nothing short of remarkable, and he’s finally proven he’s capable of much more than settling for the title of spoof master of a generation.
Many years ago, Baby (Ansel Elgort) was in a car accident that killed his abusive father and musician mother, and left him with a permanent case of horrible tinnitus. Fast forward to the present day, Baby is in the employ of Doc (Kevin Spacey), a big time gangster that he’d ripped off many years before. You see, Baby is the best driver in the business, and whenever Doc needs to pull off the perfect heist, he calls up Baby, who drowns out the ringing in his ears the same way he times his escapes: a killer playlist on his iPod. However, as Baby meets a cute waitress (Lily James) right as he prepares for his final heist, he must find a way to escape the life he was forced into and live the life he’s always wanted, even if he has to cross three master criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, and Eiza González) to do so.
Let’s cut right to the chase (I’m sorry) and discuss the first half of this movie. What we’re looking at with these first fifty minutes or so is absolute art. Wright not only utilizes his mastery of action sequences and his ear for a killer soundtrack, he combines them into one seamless blend of imagery I doubt the world has seen before. Almost every sequence here, whether it be a car chase, a shootout, a dance with the prettiest girl in town, or a simple walk down the street to get coffee, is perfectly choreographed, perfectly timed, and perfectly executed, so that each beat of action and each framed image is matched with a specific beat or a specific riff from the perfect song. The very first scene of the movie – a bank robbery that transforms into a car chase – is timed so seamlessly to “Bellbottoms” by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, it’s almost breathtaking to witness. And it doesn’t let up, as the very next scene is an expertly shot long take of Baby dancing down the street. Sure, that sounds simple enough, and it looks effortless on the big screen, but make no mistake: to choreograph something like this that flawlessly to music is no easy task, and doing so without the aid of edits is damn difficult. This isn’t a car chase movie, an action movie, or even a musical. This is a ballet, a perfectly timed rendition of dance and movement set to a series of musical interludes that tells a story. Looking back on it, I can’t help but smile as I marvel at how anyone managed to pull it off.
While we’re on the subject of music, let’s talk about the soundtrack. This isn’t really a soundtrack where you go, “Wow, remember that?” the same way you did when you listened to Guardians of the Galaxy, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s more akin to Pulp Fiction, a soundtrack consisting of a series of older songs meant to represent homage, style, and, above all, the director’s own personal tastes in music. And while there may only be a handful of songs you recognize, that’s ok – these songs work better unknown anyway. The tastes range from classic rock to Motown to Egyptian reggae, each one adding a flair to the film that puts a smile on your face. My favorite choices include the aforementioned “Bellbottoms,” T. Rex, “Tequila,” and the titular song “Baby Driver.” My favorite song/sequence combo is probably “Hocus Pocus,” which comes during a well-constructed chase scene, but I don’t think there’s a better use of a song for a laugh-out-loud moment than a dramatic use of Barry White. Believe me when I say you’ll walk out of this movie wanting to buy the soundtrack.
And while there’s nothing truly original about the script, I want to emphasize that this is in no way a bad thing. I don’t want to rehash the famous Godard quote “All you need for a good film is a gun and a girl,” mainly because I’ve already used it in my 100 Greatest Films series to describe the slightly-similar-but-completely-different Drive, but I don’t know how you can talk about this movie without thinking of that quote. This is the type of movie that the film noir genre was built upon in the mid-forties, before giving way to the crime-is-cool movies of the 60s, like Bullitt, The French Connection, and The Italian Job. Sure, there’s nothing “original” here, what with a plot about bank robbers, going straight, and winning over the dream girl, but hey, it wasn’t original in the 1940s, either. Why should we fault Edgar Wright for doing something vintage, especially when he does it so well? Plus, this movie is really funny. Wright has written some killer dialogue for these characters, ranging from the absurd to the witty to the traditionally straight, and these actors chew it up like it’s their job, from the smart one-liners of Jon Hamm to a dumb little back and forth over the difference between Mike Myers the actor and Michael Myers the Halloween villain. And perhaps more importantly, it’s self-aware in its references to other movies, from the subtle nods to Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde to the blatant homages to Monsters, Inc. Yeah, that’s not a typo-Monsters, Inc. plays a remarkably large role in this movie. If I had any complaints about the film, it would be that the final scene is a bit too far-fetched, even for a dumb little action comedy. However, I don’t really want to harp on that too much. A key component of last twenty minutes, without spoiling too much, sort of plays out similarly to a component of Die Hard, and while I believe that Wright is intentionally trying to spoof that a bit, it doesn’t play in an original story the same way it does in a satirical comedy. It’s not a major misstep, just a slight stumble near the end that barely takes you out of it.
Nothing really makes a movie sing like it does when a cast looks like they’re having the time of their lives, and that’s exactly the case with Baby Driver. The film’s secret weapon is the young Ansel Elgort. Elgort is a talented youth who has seen his talent wasted in The Fault in Our Stars and The Divergent Series. Nevertheless, he showcases his charm in everything he does, and that’s exactly what he does here to make the film soar. Elgort is effortlessly cool, and I’m not talking about the average “cool.” I’m talking about that special mountaintop reached by the likes of Jean-Paul Belmondo and Warren Beatty in Breathless and Bonnie and Clyde, or Ryan Gosling and Steve McQueen in Drive and literally anything. It’s the cool where people will want to dress like him, women will want to be with him, and men will both want to be him and be with him. A part of what makes him so charming is no matter how badass he looks behind the wheel, how tough he looks holding a gun, or how devilishly handsome he is when he smiles, he truly feels like he has a heart of gold. That’s what draws the audience to him, and that’s what draws Lily James’ Debora to him. I won’t lie and say James is as bombastic as, say, Faye Dunaway or Jean Seberg, but she is definitely pretty, charming, and quick with a line, and that’s all we need to match Elgort. As for the film’s “villains,” Wright knows exactly how to let them ham it up without their becoming obnoxious. Foxx gets the bulk of the funny lines and the over-the-top comedic moments, but my favorites are González and Hamm, who deliver their lines with class and charm, but aren’t afraid to be as ridiculous as the plot needs them. And Spacey knows exactly how to phone it in, and I don’t mean this as an insult. His character requires nothing more than the ability to talk quick, patronize his employees, and roll his eyes hilariously and menacingly. That’s pretty much Spacey’s only personality, so it makes sense he can just show up and be perfect. There’s not one person miscast in this film, and it helps add up to a pure cinematic thrill.
I think this review can best be summed up with a short story. When I started writing this review, this movie was about half a letter grade down, due to my thoughts on the film’s ending. I then sat on it for a day, allowing my fond memories to grow. Meanwhile, my father, an agnostic to the movie scene, who accompanied me to the screening, literally spent hours talking giddily about the way the film was shot. Between my own appreciation and the way it impressed even the most cynical man I know, I can’t help but reward this film accordingly. This was a high risk, high reward situation, and Edgar Wright is now sitting pretty because of it. And if you go to see it, you will be too.